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Monday, July 26, 2010

 

An interesting theme in movies

I've just watched Me and Orson Welles, and I'd recommend others to do the same. It's a movie I missed at first go-round because, as with Son of Rambow, it was rather oddly promoted. Son of Rambow was billed as the funniest British film since Hot Fuzz, despite having nothing in common with it except being a British movie, so I almost missed it on the logic than I hadn't liked Hot Fuzz. Me and Orson Welles was billed as 'the feel-good film of the year', despite being a kind of imaginative biopic rather than anything particularly feelgood. Somebody really needs to have a word with whoever puts those posters together.

However, Me and Orson Welles actually reminded me most of another movie. It seems like an odd comparison at first blush, but structurally and, for want of a better word, morally, it's telling almost exactly the same story as The Last King of Scotland.

That's another movie I'd highly recommend - even higher than Me and Orson Welles, with a general recommendation for anything scripted by Peter Morgan thrown in, though it's certainly a less chirpy experience. But the story is basically the same.

Each is the story of a first job: the hero is a charming if unwise young man who strikes out from his respectable existence in search of something more exciting, crosses the path of a formidable figure - Idi Amin in the case of The Last King of Scotland, Orson Welles in ... well, you don't need me to tell you that, do you? - and, with a degree of chutzpah and luck, finds himself suddenly swept into a more glamorous, but far more volatile world. They're stories of boys too easily charmed, rash enough to depend on the good will of an older, more powerful man who eventually turns on them. Orson Welles's turning doesn't involve meat hooks, of course, and doesn't entirely undermine the sunny quality of the film, but these are stories with the same fundamental moral, which might be expressed in the following improvised proverb:

Just because the tiger licks you today, it doesn't mean he won't bite you tomorrow.

Both are stories of failing to see the danger in taking a job working for someone who fired your predecessor on a whim, of being vain or naive enough to think that someone who bullies other people will somehow make an exception for you, of discovering that how people treat you is about how them and how they treat people, not about you and how you deserve to be treated, and that you're probably less of an exception than you think. They're stories of learning the hard way that a dangerous person is dangerous to you as well as to everyone else.

They are, in short, fables.

And it's interesting to see two fables made within a couple of years of each other (2007 and 2009 respectively) delivering the same moral. The morals that our stories tell often reveal a lot about the surrounding culture, and I'm wondering if these stories of punished hubris are telling us, in our collapsed economy and rough job market and young people struggling for position that older people are sitting upon, something about ourselves.

And I'm also wondering if this is a moral that's been cropping up elsewhere. Has anyone else seen a movie that has the same story lately?

Friday, July 16, 2010

 

Vampires, eh?

I'll say it straight out: I'm not very interested in vampires. Or at least, I'm less interested in reading books or watching movies about vampires than I am in hearing what people think those books and movies say about our culture. I was more interested in what Twilight said about teen girls, for instance, than I was in anything about the book itself, and that goes for a lot of things. This isn't to say I think all vampire stuff is bad, but I do think that there's been such a glut of it that an awful lot is soaked in cliche and simplistic sexual fantasy, and that's not particularly my cup of tea. In the Q&A at the back of my first novel, American version, one of the questions was 'Why werewolves instead of, for instance, vampires?', and my answer, while honest enough (Basically, 'I think there's enough vampire stuff already, plus, er, the idea that occurred to me wasn't about vampires, it was about werewolves...'), another answer could equally have been 'Because I don't happen to have a vampire fetish' - which would exclude me from an awful lot of vampire stuff.

However, I heard a very interesting podcast the other day about the TV series True Blood, which I think is worth recommending to anyone who is interested in vampires. (The two podcasters are Tami Winfrey Harris of What Tami Said and Renee Martin of Womanist Musings.) And it got me thinking about how metaphors - something the vampire trope is particularly prone to - work.

True Blood, for those of you who don't follow such things, is a show based on a series of urban fantasy/Southern Gothic popular novels by Charlaine Harris; the basic premise is that in the wake of a new synthetic drink, Tru Blood, which vampires can consume instead of biting people, vampires come out of the closet and into society, taking the position of uneasy ethnic minority, with various social repercussions. (Starting disclaimer: I haven't read the books so can say nothing intelligent on that subject.) The TV series was adapted by HBO, and as that's the channel responsible for The Wire and Big Love, my two favourite series, I'm always prepared to give a new HBO flagship production a go. So, when the first series screened in the UK (which is, I think, as far as we've got), I sat down and watched it.

I have to confess myself not grabbed. The credit sequence, with its swinging music and indie-montage series of images, raised my hopes high, but after a while I had to admit that the credits had an altogether artier, more impressionistic and visually inventive note than the show itself; if the show had been that stylish, you'd be listening to a vampire convert right now. As it was ... well. The story had a tendency to finish plot arcs within a few episodes, often by killing the characters involved, where keeping them alive might have made for developing complexity; characters tended to be basically good or basically bad which, as a fan of The Wire and Big Love, I found disappointing and not what I look to HBO to see; I found it hard to like the heroine. Anna Paquin, who plays the protagonist (Sookie Stackhouse by name) is a gifted and charismatic actress, but the character suffered from a problem I've seen before in this kind of work (specifically, mass-market fantasy work with a female audience in mind): she came across less as heroic than as self-righteous. Sookie flares up at small provocation, which is fine - touchy characters can create drama - but the provocation is usually that somebody has criticised her; she very seldom displays such spirit in a selfless defence of anybody else, which makes it harder to admire. Her central plot revolves around her relationship with Bill, her trying-to-be-virtuous vampire boyfriend, and I have to own myself cynical because it seemed such an open appeal to wish fulfillment fantasy - and the same basic fantasy that drives Twilight: shy, straight-laced girl gets glamorous boyfriend whose outsider status makes her special and gets her lots of attention. Which, y'know, is fine if that's your fantasy, but it is basically wish fulfillment, and from HBO I was hoping for something more.

So, not really my thing. But there were other areas where I wasn't entirely comfortable, to do with the show's handling of race, and on that score I was on much shakier ground: I'm an English white woman, and my judgements about how a show portrays African American characters are always going to be judgements from the outside. It's here that What Tami Said's podcast came along - and I found myself listening with great interest. Because it's a combination between two American women of colour and anti-racist activists, Tami and Renee, who also happen to be fans of the show ... if not entirely comfortable with its handling of race.

The podcast is too long to reproduce everything they said here, and you should listen to it anyway, but their discomfort arose from the fact that, while apparently the TV version tries to create a more ethnically diverse cast than the books, the black characters in True Blood tend to be stereotypes of one kind or another. Sookie's best friend, for instance, is the African American Tara. Tara is aggressive, defensive, belligerent; in her first appearance, she bawls out a customer at the shop where she works before quitting in fury for no very good reason. I remember watching that scene with disquiet: Tara pretends she has a 'baby daddy' before calling the white woman racist for believing her and assuming she would have illegitimate children because she's black ... which is all very well, but I couldn't help thinking, 'Okay, but this whole volatile, loudmouthed black woman thing? Isn't that a racist stereotype as well?' Tami's comments introduced me to the interesting description of Tara as 'a Sapphire' (a reference to an abrasive character on Amos and Andy, I gather, a show that rings few bells for an Englishwoman in her thirties), which it appears is a shorthand way of saying 'a stereotypically volatile, loudmouthed black woman'. So there we go. Ultimately my suspicion was that the supposed diversity of the cast functioned as much to make Sookie look cool (she has a black friend! and a gay friend! and a vampire boyfriend!), to have non-white/straight/living people function as accessories to the mainstream girl, as from any desire to express the actual experience of a wide range of people. 'Some of my best friends are black, you know.'

Which is troubling in itself. Sookie is every bit as volatile and hair-triggered as Tara; neither character brooks any criticism, and on the whole Tara has better justification for being quick tempered (bad childhood, though black-family-as-dysfunctional isn't a great piece of representation either, plus Tami and Renee commented that, while they doubted the show's writers saw it this way, they could identify with it to some extent, as being the only black woman in a largely white social group is a very stressful experience and none of us are at our most patient under intense stress). Yet it's Tara who's seen as the aggressive character while Sookie is considered a lady. This is the kind of division that does neither side any good: it labels the black woman irrational while failing to hold the white woman to adult standards of behaviour.

The point they made that was really interesting, though, was how vampires work as an ethnic minority. Now, you don't have to write vampires as an ethnic minority - vampire as serial killer, as sexual magnet, as alienated freak, as ... well, anything you like, are all possibilities. But if you decide to write a story in which a particular fantastical group is openly functioning in a fairly naturalistic society, then to write the story properly you do have to have some take on socio-political dynamics. I did it with Bareback, and in fact did something very similar: non-werewolves were the ethnic minority in my scenario, and, being a white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class writer with no personal experience of any kind of discrimination except sexism, I just had to do my best and be careful.

But what Tami and Renee said about vampires as an ethnic minority, at least as conceived in True Blood, was an extremely strong point: to wit, that it doesn't write vampires as if they were anything like actual minorities. They don't have a disability: vampirism is super-strength, longevity and magical powers. Rather than being disabled, vampires are hyper-able. They don't look like an ethnic minority: they're pale-skinned, hyper-white. I'd add that they don't seem to have any money troubles, which for a stigmatised minority is rare to say the least, and such social stigma as exists against them is largely background noise - redneck extras making comments in bars, discussion on television shows, nothing that seriously impacts the plot at least in the first series. Then there's beauty. People of colour often complain, quite legitimately, that standards of beauty are very much white standards of beauty (identify, if you can, an African American screen beauty with dark skin and 'African' features; consider epicanthoplasty and companies that actually forbid their black employees to have natural hair) ... and yet vampires in True Blood, or at least most of them, are super-beautiful, super-sexy, super-glamorous: whatever standards of beauty their society holds, vampires, once again, hyper-conform to them rather than deviate from them. These vampires don't look so much like an ethnic minority as like an ethnic majority that happens to be short on numbers.

And this got me to thinking about the nature of cool in art. Because cool is a trickier concept than ethnicity or class, or at least harder to define, but I think it's a big part of what's going on here.

Let's be blunt: Southern Gothic has its moments, but urban fantasy is not a cool genre. If the story rests heavily on the wish fulfillment fantasy of the shy white girl, cool is going to be a glittering prize rather than a state experienced from within. (I realise that analysing cool is in itself a pretty uncool thing to do, but sod it, I'm having a baby next month. Parents are supposed to be uncool compared with their children, else how does anyone make it through adolescence?) But if we're talking about vampires and we're not explicitly going against the trend, as with Cronos or Let The Right One In (the former using vampirism as a metaphor for aging, the latter as a metaphor for alienation), then glamour is going to be an issue. And this takes us back to Dracula and the lads.

Dracula, you see, was an aristocrat. A Count, no less, pitting his Old Europe wits against the rising British middle class, with their typewriters and their telegrams and their shorthand and their new technological respectability and upright sexual morals: we're dealing, here, with a class conflict as much as a supernatural one. The old-style vampire in his opera cloak is, in effect, a bloodsucking landlord: he has his family manse and his style and his lineage, and he preys ruthlessly upon those lower down the food chain than himself. It's a neat and consistent package: he has the cachet of the upper classes, and incurs the same intimidated ambivalence from those below.

As the genre drifted on, however, the cachet seems to have come uncoupled. We still have aristocrats kicking around the real world, but they aren't the socially dominant force they once were, and we've yet to see a vampire revival with CEOs of multinational corporations, the new aristocracy, as the bloodsuckers. (Possibly they aren't sexy enough.) Instead, we now have sexy vampires who also suffer the anguish of social rejection - or at least nominal social rejection, as it doesn't seem to stop them getting laid. Popular writers tend to pick up on the glamour and ignore the social discomfort ... and since vampires are sexy, they sometimes transfer them into the out-group because outsiderdom is also sexy.

So what are we looking at with modern fantasy vampires? I'd call it an aristocracy of cool rather than of social position. The sexy outcast, in fantasy at least, is higher up the cool rankings than the ordinary person, and vampirism picks up on that perfectly.

The trouble is, cool doesn't carry much socio-political power in the real world. If you leave socio-political conflict out of it, nobody's going to notice or care - but if you try to engage with it, you wind up with someone who looks aristocratic to the reader's social tastes without giving them responsibility for the power that actual aristocracy would bring. It's a kind of best-of-both-worlds which might explain why vampires are such a popular fantasy: you get the overdog strength and glamour, plus the underdog exemptions.

I very much doubt that True Blood is the only fiction to trip over this contradiction. It strikes me as an inherent problem: if you give a group superior supernatural powers, you need to contrive one heck of a reason why they'd be the underdogs as well. I wasn't consciously thinking of this when, in Bareback, I decided to make the supernatural creatures the majority - but in retrospect, I would have given myself an impossible problem if I hadn't. People aren't persecuted for being physically stronger than average, or capable of greater feats; the only way to deal with the situation was to flip it, making the magic powers a kind of metaphor for the privilege that majority status gets you.

Keep the vampires in the minority, though, and exactly how like a disadvantaged minority are they? Whatever Sookie says about it, the plain fact is that there's a good reason to discriminate against a vampire: their very life depends on criminal behaviour. Even if you did invent a drink that made the behaviour unnecessary, most vampires will have a lot of murders in their past. You could, I suppose, try to paint a portrait of vampire as disadvantaged community for whom crime is the only possible way of life, who face glass-ceiling prejudice if circumstances change adn they try to become respectable ... but oooh boy are you kicking a beehive if you try to make any kind of racial comparison there. Fundamentally, there's just the hint of an implication that minorities are more naturally criminal than everyone else in using the vampire-as-ethnic/sexual-minority imagery, and that is, in the deeper sense of the phrase, Not Cool. When you get right down to it, sleeping with your own sex or having some melanin in your skin are morally neutral; eating people is not.

Vampirism as a metaphor for outsiderdom, in short, is a slipperly little sucker. I can see the appeal, but if you start thinking about it, it's liable to turn and bite you.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

 

The next person who says 'Hur hur they must have been on drugs when they did that' gets punched

I'm serious.

For those of you who haven't had the experience, it goes like this. You're having a Saturday night in, flipping channels because you don't have to get up early tomorrow, vaguely hoping for something interesting on the media recycling plant that is Freeview. A 'Hundred Greatest...' program is playing, offering some kind of round up of cinema's hundred greatest war films, or sexy moments, or children's movies, or scary moments, or ... well, you get the picture. It looks like it might have some good stuff in it, or at least some good recommendations to add to your LoveFilm list.

Staffed by minor celebrity talking heads rather than, say, film critics, the commentary isn't wildly illuminating. But it's late and you can't really be bothered to go to bed, so you drift along, watching the clips and half-listening to the heads talk ... and after a while you notice something. About every five to ten minutes, one of them says - with the air of making a really original joke - 'Wow, that whimsical moment. Ha ha ha. I think they must all have been on drugs when they did that!'

At which point, the choices become throwing something at the screen, or stirring your stumps bedwards so you can pull the covers up and weep at the world.

It's not just that it's an incredibly boring joke that we've all heard before. It's not just that it's probably wrong in a lot of cases, because people do sometimes, y'know, make things up. It's that it's a complete degradation of the human capacity for art.

The human mind is a remarkable thing, and art is one of its most remarkable tics. When we disengage from the usual logic of the everyday world and start following an artistic thread, a different kind of logic takes over. Associative logic. Child-logic. Subconscious logic. Art logic. Images and words and incidents hang together not by linear sequence but because, like chords or colours, they're lovely side by side for reasons you can't rationally explain. This is the human imagination, where beauty happens.

'Hur hur. Must have been on drugs.'

Grr!

The assertion in that inane crack is that people would only put together something original, something fantastic and colourful and independent of ordinary reality, if they're high. That there's no coherence other than mundane coherence. That people don't actually, y'know, make things up or have talent or use their imaginations; that they aren't capable of creativity unless they've scrambled their brains with strong chemicals. That the numinous comes only in pill form.

It's often the comment of someone who really doesn't get why whatever-it-is is so charming or fresh but doesn't want to admit it, and so is expressing their discomfort in a joke that demeans it. Or the comment of someone who wants to look hip, of course. But mostly it's the comment of someone who can't think of a way of talking about something that talks in its own language - really imaginative stuff is often hard to analyse - and so shrugs that language off rather than admit that it's silenced them.

I love imaginative works. I try my best to write imaginative fiction, though it's not usually of the hur-hur-she-must-have-been-on-drugs style; I've written trippier stuff in the past but I haven't published it. I don't take drugs, and I'm absolutely not about to: other people's hobbies are their own business, but I live by my wits, the chemistry of the brain is delicate and trifling with it seems like a really unwise thing to do. Besides, I can get my wonders from art.

Some artists take drugs, because some people take drugs and artists are people. But a really strange and wondrous work of art is just as likely the work of someone stone-cold sober, going into the depths of their undrugged mind and finding a new coherence. That tired old musta-been-on-drugs gag is a denial of the very possibility; a denial, at base, of the existence of imagination itself.

The next person who says 'Hur hur they must have been on drugs' gets punched. And the one after that gets stabbed.

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